A Short Critique of Popular Use of Narratology in Engaged Artistic Practices

When artists delve into engaged practices, there are a few conventional ‘gateways’ facilitating a bridge between the artist, who is seen as separate, and their intended subject, who is seen as deviant and thus needing to be approached. The idea of gateways encompasses an ontological difference, where a social reality is not shared by the parties ‘engaging’ with it, so it has to be almost artificially constructed. So, quite often, a narrative is fabricated. This gap, which is already fictional, needs a meta-structure that transcends the incommensurable contingencies of different cultures in service of ‘understanding’ those different cultures—allowing a sense of mutual understanding without being reductive. Extrapolated into one of the popular goals of the engaged artistic practices, which is to help, this gateway approach presupposes that the engaged practitioner apparently does not have a role that social reality themselves. One of the most common ways of fabricating a gateway is through narratology, the study of narratives. More precisely, narratology is utilised because the story is the fabric that makes up much of a community and binds it together. Knowing that story allows a gateway into the story.

As a result, narratology in the arts often results in maps, photo series, and mementos that vocalise otherwise silent actors. In engaged artistic practice, narratology often encompasses a gateway practice of the collection and study of narratives from an area, either physical (resulting in mapping) or intellectual (resulting in stories), in which the artistic practitioner is to work based on that data collected. Narratives here are used as a means to study the cultural reality around us; they facilitate the grammar in a culture one does not control the language of. As Hayden White argues, a ‘narrative is a metacode, a human universal on the basis of which transcultural messages about the nature of a shared reality can be transmitted.’1 Narratology is very much influenced by (post-)structuralists, such as Roland Barthes and Noam Chomsky, who, as White’s quotation already implies, believe in a universal linguistic structure that applies to all contingent cultures and can thus be used as a legitimate entrance into the realities of cultures that are not necessarily one’s own. In a way, the universality of this apparent universal lingual structure might more easily be found in misunderstanding—the first response to anything deviant—rather than a sort of a priori understanding. The artist who poses to understand before misunderstanding necessarily does not build a gateway but a drawbridge, dropping their interpretation on to planes that surround them.

This article, however, will not critique the premises of a ‘universal grammar’ or ‘narratological metacode’ in general. Instead, it will look at the ontological position of the ‘outsider’ gathering the stories, and wonder whether this is the way to go (in). The reason I draw attention to White’s argument about this ‘universal’ part of the narrative is that it sustains the ontological position I will try to critique: the ‘view from nowhere.’ This is an unconditioned and unmediated position of overview, which sees from anything it pleases but not vice versa: it cannot be seen, nor critiqued, because it apparently does not have a position. Obviously, this is the position any ‘neutral’ draws from. I will propose that ‘partaking’ in the stories, even as an ‘intruder,’ honours more of the structure of a social reality than just ‘gathering’ them to be transfigured into an artistic object like a map, photo reportage, or, for that matter, an abstract object. Most importantly, one does not need to fully ‘grasp’ a story beforehand (or during, or afterwards) to partake in them for the simple reason that those who already partake in the story do not have the full overview of all its twists, storylines, characters and so forth. In other words, no sociality is fully comprehensible and reducible to a story, nor does anyone in that social reality have the full overview of that social reality. Although we consciously make sense of our own life in the third person, everything also exists outside its own perception; we rarely experience life as such. Only the writer of a book, the external seer, the constructor of a metacode, will have the artificial privilege of that position of ‘outside.’ The reason for that, to stress it again, is that there is no inside in the story of a writer, only an outside that is formulated in such a manner as if there were an inside—and this is, in fact, the power of fiction. However, fictionalising the non-fictional—reducing it to an outside—is a reductive act. This short article will conclude that grasped from outside can be regarded as stealing, but grasped from inside is partaking.

‘Gathering’ Stories

Mary Beth Edelson, Story Gathering Boxes, (1972-2014), courtesy of The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum (

If there is something ‘universal’ to stories, it means that someone outside of the story can just as much ‘grasp’ its syntax as someone within that story: entanglement would not make an ontological difference, and can thus not be thought of as ethically problematic. However, it is true that an external (meta-)position does add another perspective: the perspective of no perspective; the fictional perspective. Moreover, one could even argue that someone outside the story can more easily ‘grasp’ the syntax because this person is outside it and, as such, not immersed in the tantalising complexity of webs of storylines, characters, plots, climaxes and so forth. Moreover, it would be a mistake to argue that literary devices only take place on paper; they also often very silently take place around us. This does not mean that reality has a ‘plot,’ but it can be read as such. Only an external seer would note the instance when a neighbour drops a glass of wine and destroys their carpet. Or that fight between lovers that makes them break up. It thus implies an objective stance, a ‘view from nowhere’ that pierces through any wall social realities build around themselves. Social realms always withdraw, and narratology moves against this withdrawal, often for the very important motive of reflection.

However, the main fault in this apparent position of ‘outside’ is that perspectives are always already situated, meaning you can obviously only note the wine on the carpet if you are the neighbour, or the break up if you are related to these former lovers. There is no view from nowhere—perspective is always situated, and social realities always ‘withdraw’ from external parties. That is why houses have walls between the windows, and doors in the frames. To offer an example, journalism attempts to rid any story of its situatedness and so transfigure it into fact. This is an incorrect way to understand life, which is why so many artists are attracted to social realities—because they often attempt to do the opposite. (We all know photo series like ‘people from the neighbourhood,’ which are based on the somewhat odd presupposition that strangers do not have lives themselves but all of a sudden appear to have an interesting story through artistic representation.) As illustrated with journalism, these methods of stripping are also exactly what anyone occupying the ‘view from nowhere’ will fail to grasp: the complex and embodied experience of a running, always-still-going story of life in a social reality. Something also happens in between the windows, not just and only in front of the windows. In order to grasp a story, one has to formalise it; one has to write it down; fossilise it in an historic account preserved in the conclusive boundaries of the text. And that is all fine—interpretation is, above all, creation, allowing ourselves to see ourselves as deviant. But it is only fine as long as we do not regard it as the social reality itself. The images of the protest are not the protest itself. Even though protest is occupied with quantifying its own image, the image would also dramatically fail to stand in for the protest. We cannot look at these objects made from social realities as definitive when the ink has dried, the shutter has clapped, and the research has drawn its conclusion.

The verb ‘to gather,’ which is often used by engaged practitioners in regards to narratives, points towards this silent view from nowhere because it means ‘to collect, store up’2—that is to say, a cabinet of non-collectibles; fossils of the present; fictions about facts. These are indeed all oxymorons that show the imaginative power of fiction, but gathering will fail in the present. Always. This position of nowhere originates from seeing stories as cultural products, as finished things that emerge from a culture every now and then once the story has been concluded. It is quite literal, as if it were a book we can take from a shelf. However, I would propose that a narrative is more accurately usable as an activated (non-historical) synonym of ‘social reality,’ where stories are never really fully concluded, and thus always still take place. Any story is open-ended, even when it has already taken place. This asks for a new approach to narratology within the arts that I call ‘roleablity.’ In order to regard narratives as activated synonyms of ‘social reality,’ we must first think of the above approach as ‘narratopological’—mapping narratives. The narratopologist is the engaged artistic practitioner who works as a ‘collector,’ or possibly ‘hoarder,’ of stories. I believe that adopting roleability as an approach bypasses the negative parts of narratopology, such as dangerous fictionalisation and the view from nowhere.

To ‘Have’ a Story

Without a story to tell, one cannot speak. We explain and make sense of our lives by transforming them into transmittable stories. In a way, then, we have to transcend our own lived experience by detaching time, space and self. If we speak of our experiences of life, we speak through narratological structures (i.e., ‘Yesterday I went to… then this happened… I responded like this…). We do this in the first person, but the story told needs a third-person perspective in order to be formulated. One has to detach from oneself to speak in terms of what has happened to oneself. In a way, one could argue, this act creates a ‘universal’ language that allows others to have an understanding of another’s life, precisely because it is depersonalised (or rather, decentralised), and we can imagine ourselves in the role of the subject in the story. However, this is a hasty conclusion. Something changes when we speak about collecting stories. A story is depersonalised and taken from its writer: the non-fictional story now becomes fictional—because it is taken away from the fact, and the fact here is the person who actually lived that story. So, by collecting the first-person story developed in third-person by that same first person, the narrator is separated from the first person; they were in the end, in fact, the same person. The story now becomes a bookshelf object. From our own lived experiences, we make bookshelf objects plain by phrasing them into (somewhat) coherent structures. The motive to do so for an engaged artist is mandate. Life becomes a see-through, indexical document. The paradox might seem, as Wilhelm Dilthey could have argued, that by expressing life in a certain social reality—say, in the form of an artwork—also instantaneously becomes an objectification of that life, acquiring conditions similar to a document. This is not an issue at all because the trouble lies in the position where it is not the actor of the lived experience, but the witness of that lived experience who transfigures it into an objectification of life. This thus regards ownership.

In this case, first of all, these stories imply an understanding of a scene in which they take place. Know the stories of a scene, and you have a ticket to partake in that scene. What’s more, depersonalising the first person into a third-person narrator develops a position of epistemological power: a sensation of having a claim to knowledge over the other’s life. This claim functions as a ‘way in,’ as an ‘emphasiser,’ allowing the collector of the story—in this occasion, the engaged practitioner, who becomes somewhat of an artistic anthropologist through this act—to gain insight into the social reality they want to partake in. The intention of this act is of a nature of ‘helping,’ in whatever form it may be, meaning that they use the story to locate a ‘problem’—a problem that often seems unresolvable—for which their powers as artist might help to find a new form of solution.

Narrative as Social Reality

As opposed to seeing the narratives of social realities as ‘bookshelf objects,’ we could think of a social reality as a never-ending story in which all the characters somewhat unconsciously play a part. It is thus not plainly a collection of chronological and traceable lines of events; the opposite might be truer. In more traditional approaches to stories, there are always protagonists through whom we experience stories, either in first-, second- or third-person perspectives of the transcending narrator. In social reality as narrative, there is simultaneously no protagonist nor any transcending narrators. We have to rid these devices when switching from fiction to non-fiction. Meanwhile, in social reality as narrative, everyone is a protagonist and ‘the’ narrator, although from the perspective of the non-written role one plays in one’s own life. This encompasses that as long as we speak of this social reality as narrative in traditional personal perspectives, we will fail to grasp it because to grasp something, we need to detach ourselves from experiencing it (morph our experience in life from first-person experience to third-person narration).

In this social reality as narrative, which is a collective endeavour of all those unconsciously playing an unscripted part, things constantly happen, characters meet, distinguished and a lot of undistinguished events take place; and although this all takes place quite decentralised and most especially non-narrated in the present tense, there are common factors between all these players. These common factors are relationalities—that which intertwines or ‘knots’ some of the characters and storylines in specific settings. These common factors may very much be issues that define a community in a social reality, or the scenery of a place. Say, for example, the demolition of the neighbourhood school, which means people with kids in this social reality lose a ‘knot’ in the story. A setting in which it used to take place which now becomes historical and will have to delve into another social reality to fill this gap, thus encountering new characters and a new setting there where the ‘nearest’ school is now located.

The Narratopologist

Although the terms from literary discourse feel reductive once transferred to social realities—for the simple reason that they are always functioning in the discourse of past tense—they do illustrate certain ways of playing. The narratopologist, looking from the outside, will first of all obviously never ‘grasp’ the real embodied experience; the hand grasping never feels what it is like to be grasped, nor what it feels like to be what is grasped. Neither will the narratopologist ‘grasp’ the social complexity playing within the story they are to formalise. Within this act, the connection is easily made with appropriating or even stealing immaterial and already decentralising ‘owned’ goods. This raises the question: what is the engaged artistic practitioner as narratopologist to do with these stories? There are two obvious pathways to take. The first is to ‘reflect’ the story in the form of an artwork (book, film, painting, etc.) and thus morph it into the third person, past tense. Aside from aesthetic qualities given to its form, the effective part this can play for the social reality from which it stems is that it offers those within this social reality a ‘reflection’ upon their own social reality—like one would look at a play about one’s own life. It introduces their embodied experience of social reality as if it were narrated, outside, or other. As a result, this is a didactic effect, yet it can nevertheless be helpful and effective. However, one has to understand that those in that social reality feel as though they are being ‘taught,’ and might be given the feeling they are doing something wrong, which they were unable to see themselves; they become caricatures of themselves. So, one could mistakenly think they need a narrator. This is exactly where the narratopologist ‘steals’: it steals agency and ownership over one’s own position in and embodiment of life. The second pathway is that now the engaged artistic practitioner as ‘narratopologist’ understands the social reality through the story they formalised, they will intervene on the social reality based on the conclusions that can be drawn from the problematic ‘knots’ in the stories collected. The effective part of this path is that one starts partaking from a position of ‘knowing,’ offering a head start in the social reality. The more negative effect will be that what one knows will never be accurate, and it will be reductive to those in the social reality based on the simple lack of embodied experience.

What other position could we formulate? The narratopologist’s position is a position of nowhere, at least viewed from the story of social reality. Consequently, the narratopologist does not play a ‘role.’ It is precisely in the position of the ‘role’ where we might find a solution. Rather than ‘collecting’ for the narratopologist, the premise is to act when engaging with a social realm. I call the following of this premise ‘roleability.’ More than anything, the problem illustrated in the two pathways above is that there was no ability to play a role for the narratologist due to their position of nowhereness. If we abandoned the narratological view from nowhere and offered ourselves as an actor, even if it is a ‘guest actor’ within a social reality, it would become clear which role to play through playing it.

Roleability: The Guest Actor

Roleability concerns the capacity of a guest actor to find or formulate a role within a given social reality through partaking in that social reality. This does not, however, in any way suggest that the guest actor should be explicitly invited by other actors within a social reality, because, again, there is no supra-third person or narrator. If we go back to the narrative as social reality example, we have to conclude that a lot of things happen unsolicited—as simple as people moving in or moving out of a certain area. No action needs to be mandated by the social reality itself to be part of it. The actors in the knots of the social reality which encompass that ‘area’ might influence such a decision, but they do not have a veto-right in making someone stay or go. The guest actor role, however, does imply a sensibility which regards that they have to play a role that fits to the social reality in which they have to play, meaning that the common ground can be found in the fact that you share the same supermarket just as much as that you experience the fact the neighbourhood school is being demolished, too. Roleability means nothing more than the state in which one takes acting as a premise, and formulates practice accordingly.

In this role, rather than ‘gathering’ stories, you partake in stories, and through partaking, you start ‘owning’ them in a way that the story owns you as well. This gives agency to act within it as well. This is the difference of the roleability from the narratologist, who only owns the story without owing something to the story. Within that two-sided ownership, you are a legitimate actor within this social reality, and thus have a claim to influence the story itself by the simple fact that you are already partaking in it. Hence, there is also no issue of ‘getting in’ or ‘out’ because there is no ontological difference between you and social reality. Posing such a difference would be a decadent fallacy to start with.

Story-Making Rather than Story-Gathering

As an actor within a social reality, which we always already are, we occupy a position—always. A position allows us to act, to move, and shift positions. Instead of just gathering a story by transcribing the experience of it, you make the story by playing it simultaneously; playing its unscripted scripts; scripting the unscripted script into different outcomes. This story can be many levels. It does not solely concern the ‘neighbourhood’ you live in; it can concern the university you are studying in, the political reality of the society you live in, or the structures of capitalism, in which we are all actors. In other words, it is often of no consequence at all to ‘look’ for problems as the narratopologist would with their fossilised maps and cold conclusions to be presented to anything but that social reality. There are more than enough around already that you are partaking in. Therefore, the powerful position of story-making rather than story-gathering is that it transcends far beyond the traditional pathways like the reflective book-like product discussed earlier. It opens a domain of influencing social reality by partaking in it, and hence it also draws attention to the methods with which practice is made rather than solely the meanings of its outcomes. It incorporates a performativity, which means that ‘doing’ gains a similar appreciation as ‘knowing.’ Artistic qualities can be a powerful tool here because the artist ‘defines what is visible or not.’3 These aesthetic experiences ‘simultaneously determine the place and the stakes of politics as a form of experience,4 as Rancière argued. Change the story, the image of our world; change the world itself for the simple reason that ‘politics revolves around what is seen and what can [thus] be said about it.’5 Change the story through partaking; change the reality.

Eef Veldkamp

Eef Veldkamp (1993) is an artist, researcher and teacher for Fine Art and Design in Education at ArtEZ University of the Arts, the Netherlands. At ArtEZ, he researches questions around engaged practices. By intermingling artistic and philosophical research methods, he brings about subversive textual interventions that function as the point of departure for his artistic practice, in which he develops what he calls ‘counter-systems’. These are organisations erected to engage with a specific bottleneck in society, which they do through a multiplicity of forms that he terms ‘art on batteries’. He is currently investigating our mnemonic structures for dealing with societal crises, for which he is developing a new sort of souvenir.






  • Rancière, Jacques, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. London: Continuum, 2004.
  • White, Hayden, ‘The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality.’ Critical Inquiry 7, no. 1 (1980).


↑ 1

Hayden White, ‘The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,’ Critical Inquiry 7, no. 1 (1980), p. 6.

↑ 2

‘Gather,’ Online Etymology Dictionary, Accessed on July 16, 2020.

↑ 3

Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London: Continuum, 2010), pp. 12-13.

↑ 4

Rancière 2010, p. 13. Emphasis added.

↑ 5

Rancière 2010, p. 13.